Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Strategy from Breaking Bad

This post is the first one ever where I have to say, there will be spoilers.

Breaking Bad is without a doubt the best thing on television, charting the main character, Walter White, and his descent into darkness. For those who haven't watched it, the very simple synopsis is that Walter White is a chemist, who discovers he is dying of cancer. In an effort to ensure that his family have enough money to survive in his absence he starts to make meth. Being as he is a professional chemist he makes some of the best meth it's possible to make and thus begins his second career as a meth manufacturer.

The problem that has arisen for Walter as the show has progressed into it's 5th season is that he's lost track of his strategy, whilst becoming exceptionally good at the tactical implementation of meth manufacture and distribution and it's associated skills, concealment, persuasion and so forth.

Originally Walter had a strategic objective, he was going to earn enough money to pay off his family debts, by producing high quality meth to distribute locally. He had no idea how to achieve this, and had to turn to others to gain the necessary skills, necessitating an alliance (later friendship) with Jessie Pinkman, a local small scale distributor and user of meth.

The problem now for Walter is that he has lost sight of this objective. In a recent episode he had this to say:

"You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business, neither, I'm in the Empire business"
Walt no longer as a useful strategic goal, he's replaced it with an open ended commitment to the endless manufacture of meth for it's own sake. In aiming for this objective he has alienated his family, undermining his original objective by distancing himself from the people he was originally trying to help.

His one advantage is that after more than a year making meth he's now extremely good at organising meth manufacture and distribution. He's also plugged into the criminal underworld, up to the level of now being able to organise gang land style executions in prisons across the State. He has all the tools he needs to build his Empire, but no real idea what form that Empire should take.

Walter has become subject to strategic drift, or "mission creep". As his skills have increased, he's become more and more able to take on larger and larger challenges and so he has, with scant disregard for the consequences of his actions, or the realisation that eventually he will reach a point of overreach, where even his formidable skills won't be sufficient.

If he had retained his original strategic objectives, he would have long since achieved them and been able to move forward with the rest of his life. Now he is on a path which can only lead to defeat, since what remains of his strategic goals imply he will eventually go too far and enter a situation he can't cope with.

Walter is a case study in how tactics can replace strategy over time. Skill in an operational context can lead to endless "victories" which lead no closer to achieving a true goal. It remains to be seen if Walter can be persuaded by those around him or by circumstance to revisit his original strategic goal and step back before he suffers an inevitable defeat.

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